"Saving Private Ryan" a real-life drama
Steven Spielberg's World War II film loosely based on the family of UB's Pete Niland

Reporter Contributor

UB's Pete Niland remembers his trip to Normandy, France, in 1974.

At his father's request, Niland laid flowers at the burial crosses of his uncles, Sgt. Robert Niland and Lt. Preston Niland, who were killed in action during the WWII Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944.

The real-life image bears some resemblance to the final scene in the recent blockbuster movie, "Saving Private Ryan," in which Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) returns to the Normandy grave site of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) years after Miller helped return Ryan to his family after Ryan's three brothers were killed in action.

When Niland saw the scene during the Hollywood premiere of the film on July 21, he couldn't help but think of his own family.

But he wasn't surprised, because the movie is partially based on his own family's story.

And he was well-prepared for viewing the movie after meeting with Director Steven Spielberg, participating in an HBO special on the making of the film, and flying to Hollywood twice with a number of family members. The Niland family saga is featured this week in People magazine.

Although he uses the first name "Pete," the well-known assistant director of residence halls-recently recognized for 20 years of service to UB-actually was named after his uncle Preston.

Pete Niland's father, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Edward F. Niland, died in 1983. But unlike the movie line, Edward Niland survived the war. He was shot down over Burma in southeast Asia and was held by the Japanese as a prisoner of war for 11-1/2 months-six months in solitary confinement.

"Saving Private Ryan," which premiered in Buffalo July 24, has been described as one of the most graphic and realistic portrayals of WWII and the D-Day invasion ever produced.

Directed by Spielberg, the film centers on a paratrooper, Private James Ryan (Damon), whose three older brothers are killed during the initial days of the Allied invasion.

Private James Ryan is the movie's equivalent of Pete Niland's uncle, Sgt. Frederick (Fritz) Niland, who was accidentally dropped over enemy lines in France along with other members of the 101st Airborne.

Under the War Department's sole-survivor policy-implemented after the highly publicized deaths of the five Sullivan brothers who were killed while serving on the same war ship-Fritz was located by a chaplain and sent home to his parents, Augusta and Michael Niland, in the City of Tonawanda.

"They had trouble finding him," Pete Niland said of the Rev. Francis Sampson's search, but the "rescue" was quite different from the one depicted in the movie.

In the movie, Capt. John Miller (Hanks) leads a squad to retrieve Private Ryan from behind enemy lines and bring him home to his mother, who has been devastated by news of the deaths of her three other sons.

Although the "real" mother-Niland's grandmother, Augusta-also likely was devastated by the news, he described her as a "tough old German lady," who refused most of the media attention surrounding her family's real-life drama. She died in 1966.

The survival of Pete Niland's father is another striking differences between the movie and reality. Although Edward Niland was very close to being "missing and presumed dead" after nearly a year in captivity, he was eventually liberated from the Burma prison camp by British troops and spent his postwar career working in a Tonawanda-area post office.

While growing up, Pete Niland, who was born in 1948, remembers hearing the stories of his father's ordeal, about the deaths of his two uncles, and about the return of his uncle Fritz, who eventually became an oral surgeon and worked in Niagara Falls after the war.

But "as a family, you can only talk about it so much," Niland said of the story, which was also included in the 1992 book "Band of Brothers," written by historian Steven Ambrose. The movie's writers were partially inspired by the Ambrose book, Niland has said. He described Ambrose's portrayal of his family's ordeal as "sort of correct."

The following is the account of the four brothers: Sgt. Robert Niland, 25, a paratrooper and squad leader with the 82nd Airborne, was killed in action on D-Day-June 6, 1944; Lt. Preston Niland, 29, a member of the 22nd infantry, was killed in action the following day; Air Force Tech. Sgt. Edward Niland (Pete Niland's father and age 31 at the time) was captured by the Japanese and eventually liberated; and Sgt. Fritz Niland, a member of the 101st Airborne who fought in Normandy, eventually made his way back to his unit in Carentan and was eventually met by the chaplain, informed of the death of his brothers, and was returned to the U.S.

Before the war, Preston Niland attended UB, and the other three brothers attended Canisius College.

But history aside, Pete Niland described his experiences this summer as "fascinating."

"They flew us to Hollywood twice," he said. The first time was in June to participate in the HBO special, which has since aired several times. It was then that he first met Spielberg.

"We were in Jack Benny's old studio-Studio One," Niland said. The cameras were rolling for filming of the HBO special when "Spielberg walked in, stopped production and talked to us for an hour."

"He was fascinating," Niland said, "and he was fascinated with everything we had to say."

"His father did exactly the same thing as my dad, in Burma," Niland said of the world-famous director. Spielberg also related a story in which he was walking backward while filming the scene at the Normandy cemetery when he tripped over a cross, looked up, and realized that it bore the name "John Miller," the same name as the Tom Hanks hero-character in the movie.

"There were so many things," Niland said, recalling this past summer from his office in the Ellicott Complex.

The second trip to Hollywood, in which his family was invited for the Hollywood premiere on July 21, "was just incredible," he said. "It was like a who's who of Hollywood."

Niland shook hands with Tom Hanks, Sylvester Stallone, and came into contact with countless other stars like Samuel L. Jackson, Sally Fields, Adam Goldberg, and producer and actor Edward Burns.

Spielberg mentioned the Niland family in a speech to the elite movie-goers just before the film publicly rolled for the first time.

"It was a mob scene," he said of the premiere at Mann's Theater in Westwood, Calif., which Niland attended with his wife, Jan, and other family members.

Due to the graphic nature of the film, arrangements were made for his daughter Briana, 10, to stay in the hotel room.

"We got back from the movie and she had ordered room service," Niland said, adding that Briana didn't seem to mind missing the film until she learned that "Scary Spice," of the pop group the "Spice Girls," had been in attendance at the movie and at the reception.

Meanwhile, Niland continues to be bombarded with media inquiries. In addition to the HBO special, the People magazine story and intense local media attention, he has appeared twice on MSNBC, and has been mentioned in British tabloids and news media around the globe. In late August, Niland was interviewed by a radio reporter from Sydney, Australia,

Producers at the Fox national TV network have also expressed interest in the Niland story.

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